I confess that my knowledge of Afghanistan has been fairly limited to the few things I’ve seen or read in the news or Khaled Hosseini’s body of work (well, add Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil to my fairly limited list). So when my library book club selected Jenny Nordberg’s investigative journalistic book, The Underground Girls of Kabul, I wasn’t sure what to think. But after I read, I felt that a new world and source of activism had opened up for me.
While on an investigative trip, Nordberg stumbled onto a concept that she had never heard of: the bacha posh, or a girl who is dressed like a boy. Because Afghani culture demands sons at all costs, the lack of a son can be the cause of great distress, mourning, dishonor, or danger to a family. Therefore, out of necessity, many women dress their young daughters as sons and pass them off as sons to retain family honor. And it’s a phenomenon, while not acknowledged, that has roots in more than one home. This book is Nordberg’s quest to understand how this plays out in Afghani culture, and the many components involved that create such restrictive gender roles in society.
This book read fairly quickly, and was a compelling cultural study. If anything, there were so many characters, I had a hard time telling a few of them apart. But I have to give Nordberg credit for informing me. We had an engaged and enlightening book club discussion. It did leave me with this burning question: now what? Now that I know women are trying to push against restrictive and oppressive gender norms, what can I do to help?
Cross-posted to my blog.